In the locker room this past Monday morning, Maurkice Pouncey was asked what it was like to come into the facility in first place in the division after how things started.
“It took a lot of hard work.”
The laughter of both Pouncey and the reporters told the story of Week 7 for the Steelers. Without playing a game, they were able to catapult from third place in the AFC North to having the lead in the division thanks to losses by both the Ravens and Bengals. To top it all off, the Browns also fell in overtime. So as the Steelers watched at home, the rest of the division went 0-3.
By not even putting on the pads, the Steelers did something which had never happened in the history of the AFC North: they jumped from third place to first place without playing a game.
I was curious to see if this would be the case. Moving from third place to first in the division with tight standings was something I assumed happened quite often, especially the first few weeks every season. But pulling it off while not playing a game was something I wanted to investigate. In my research, not only was it the first time this happened with the team being on the bye, a team has moved from third place to first place in the AFC North only five other times since its inception.
Before getting into the details, I wanted to make one thing clear: no team has ever gone from last to first in the AFC North in a single week. Since 2002 when the division was created, it has never occurred. before 2018, there have only ever been four seasons in which an AFC North team has jumped to the top from the third position. And in each of those seasons, it was a different team who made the leap.
The most recent team in the AFC North making the third-to-first leap was the Baltimore Ravens in 2016. The Ravens finished Week 8 of the season in third place with a record of 3-4. The Steelers held the top spot with a record of 4-3 while Cincinnati followed in second place at 3-4-1. After Baltimore defeated Pittsburgh 21-14 in Week 9 while the Bengals were on a bye, they jumped up into the division lead. The Ravens held the top spot until Week 14 when Pittsburgh took over in route to winning the division.
Going back two seasons earlier, Cleveland made an unprecedented jump from third place to first place in the division from Week 9 to Week 10 in 2014. During the season, all four teams were very closely grouped through the middle of the season. After Week 9, Cincinnati was in the lead at 5-2-1, followed by Pittsburgh (6-3), Cleveland (5-3), and then Baltimore (5-4). The Browns crushed the Bengals 24-3 in Week 10, and with the Steelers falling to the Jets, Cleveland grabbed the top spot. But it was very short-lived, as the Browns fell all the way to fourth place the following week with a loss and were the only AFC North team to not make the playoffs.
It was the previous year in 2013 when the Bengals made the third-to-first jump. It was the Week 5 when the Ravens, Browns, and Bengals were all tied at 3-2 with Cincinnati coming out on the short end of the tiebreakers. It didn’t take much to move in to first place with a win in Week 6 as both Baltimore and Cleveland lost. From Week 6 on, Cincinnati held the top spot to win the AFC North.
The 2011 season was quite intriguing as teams shuffled around for a large portion of the year. In this season, the Steelers moved from 3rd to 1st in one week of the season on two separate occasions. The first time was from Week 6 to Week 7 when the Steelers improved from 4–2 to 5–2 after defeating the Arizona Cardinals. The Ravens had held the top spot at 4–1, but dropped after a defeat to the Jaguars. Cincinnati fell one spot during their bye as they held steady at 4-2.
The other occasion where the Steelers jumped from third to first in 2011 was after they fell back to the third spot in Week 9. Pittsburgh had an extra loss at 6-3 and trailed both Ravens and Bengals who were 6–2. The Steelers defeated Cincinnati in week 10 while Baltimore lost to Seattle, which catapulted the Steelers in to first place. The Ravens reclaimed the top spot the following week as the Steelers were on bye and Baltimore matched their record and held for tiebreaker as they had already defeated the Steelers twice. For the final six weeks of the season, the Steelers and Ravens held identical records the entire way while Baltimore won the division with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati also making the playoffs.
With a total of 279 weeks in which the AFC North has existed, this past week was only the sixth time a team jumped from third to first. For those keeping track, it means this occurs 2.2% of the time. The fact the Steelers moved up to lead the division during the bye is a first for the AFC North. If it takes just as long to see this again, set your alarm for Week 15 of the 2034 season.